The Art of Touch

I’ve been struggling to communicate one concept for the last month. However, with the leaked 2005 recording of Donald Trump that’s rocked the media and blowback of his “locker room talk” explanation, I feel it’s as apt a time as any to explore a topic relevant to all of us: our attitudes and habits towards human touch.

A physical touch has immense power.   It is a form of communication with so many subtleties. With essentially the same touch, one person can assert power over another, while someone else can use it to show their love. It isn’t only the actual hand placement that matters in this equation, but the two individuals’ energies and intentions behind the giving and receiving of that touch. Any imbalance between the two parties is apparent.

img_1765The “locker room talk” excuse Trump made in reference to grabbing women’s private parts without consent is entirely representative of his general egomaniacal attitude. This is exactly the kind of mindset that people in power positions can use to get away with things that are just not okay. It’s something far too many of us have experienced.

I began thinking a lot more about my relationship with touch as over the last month as I’ve been learning about the ethics of being a yoga teacher. One of the most difficult topics for me during my year-long course has been learning to do adjustments.

Adjusting is a hands-on assist made by the yoga teacher to a student. It can be made for a few different reasons: safety (when the student may hurt themselves if you don’t intervene), comfort (like those yummy savasana adjustments you get with the shoulder press and temple massage), and omni-directional (assists to help the student develop whole body awareness).

There is so much to consider when you are putting your hands on the body of a stranger. Each teacher deals with it differently – some barely do any hands-on adjustments and others will adjust every single person in their class. I’ve been asked to decide what kind of adjusting I will do with my own classes and, with this in mind, I’ve spent the last month re-assessing my attitudes towards touch (with the help of my amazing yoga teachers).

img_1806My teacher was the person who made me think about the fact that each person has a completely different history of touch than I do. You never know who has been abused, through cancer, or is a complete germaphobe – you cannot assume that everyone has the same comfort levels. (Hear that, Donald?) Quite often people communicate nonverbally, making it clear that they did not want to be touched at all. That is their right.

My teacher made me recognize that I have rarely been touched without an agenda. Any physical contact was made with a purpose – to move me, to get something from me, etc. After thirty-one years on the planet, this is a very disconcerting realization.

It was on this basis that my class built our attitudes towards physical touch in the yoga studio. We learned adjusting in a very unique way with the overarching principle being: when you touch someone, there is a transference of energy between you.

To illustrate this, we practiced slowly resting our hands on the shoulders of a partner, syncing our breath with theirs and resting into calmness together, then slowly, slowly moving our hands away so they have that tingly, lingering feeling even after you go. My teacher calls this “cellular touch.”

img_0633Through my partner’s hands, I felt his calmness and confidence and was able to internalize it into my own body. Until then, I honestly couldn’t tell you when I’d ever felt this with someone who wasn’t family or a romantic partner. The intimacy is intense and, probably because it’s so foreign, it can even be a bit off-putting.

It was one of those rare experiences, which reminded me that we’re all connected – that we can show our love and respect by just being with people as they are instead of trying to change them. It is this type of touch – grounded in respect for each other – that we need more in the world.

What’s become abundantly clear during the last month is: a great adjustment is a reflection of the student’s body made through the teacher’s hands. These types of assists lead to muscle memory, offering more opportunity for the student to start integrating the adjustments independently and to build a rapport with their body.   You are mirroring where they are today, while also showing the possibilities you see in them. It is a really beautiful and empowering thing to be able to share.

In my little experience with hands-on adjustments so far, the main takeaway is that it is incredibly difficult to accomplish. It means you have to think about every detail relating to your interaction with the student: can they see you coming (it’s so easy to sneak attack someone), a slow approach (so they can feel your energy before you actually make contact), your hand placement (what is the purpose of this adjustment?), your fingers (getting them away from private parts), your stability (if you are off balance, you’ll throw them off too), your breath (don’t breathe in their face), how much pressure you put on them (too hard = pain, too light = creepy), not sitting on the face of the person behind them (this one is pretty important), and a slow release of pressure (rather than an abrupt stop, which will also throw them off balance).

I’ve seen firsthand what the wrong and right kind of touch can do. Too often the wrong kind leads us to isolating ourselves as some sort of protection. However, the right kind of touch can show us support, love, and respect. It can illustrate how much further we can go if we have someone to show us our progress.

I believe there is a huge benefit to the intimacy of touch – to feeling like someone is seeing you for who you are and taking care of you without wanting anything in return. This is just one way of communicating something we are in dire need of on a global scale – acceptance and respect.
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Let’s be clear here: I am not suggesting that you go out and touch a bunch of strangers – that would probably lead to a lawsuit. Instead, take notice of how you physically handle yourself and others in your life. Observe the energy you pick up from others and that which you give to them as well. Note the shift that can occur if you approach someone with care instead of just taking what you need from them and leaving.

Let’s see what happens when we look at each other as equals.

Please report back.

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